Colored Vinyl: A Chronological Survey

This article ran in issue 2 of Trouser Press Collectors’ Magazine in late 1978. While the historical information is pretty fascinating , some dated references about availability and value, etc. have been removed.

By Marc Zakarin

Remember those kiddie singles that used to come on clear yellow or green vinyl and featured characters like Peter Pan or Howdy Doody? Perhaps you even owned some yourself. Little Golden Records and Wonderland Records were many people’s introduction to colored vinyl records. Recently, though, record companies have rediscovered the use of these nifty discs and, through the miracle of modern technology, begun to issue colored vinyl records and their more recent cousins, picture discs, in increasing quantities, both for promotional purposes and as a device to increase retail sales.

More colored vinyl LPs will be released in 1978 than in all previous years combined. The excitement generated by colored wax has only been topped by that shown for the picture discs: LPs with the album cover art pressed right under the vinyl.

A Brief History

In 1949 Vogue Records began producing clear 78 rpm one-track records with picture inserts. The same year, RCA began producing 45 rpm singles in colored vinyl on their classical Red Seal line featuring the Boston Pops, NBC Orchestra, Mario Lanza and other light classical artists. RCA also used yellow wax for kiddie records, green for country-and- western and blue for pop.

Around 1952, R&B labels started using colored vinyl, most often red, for the first pressing of new releases. Some R&B acts to watch for in red vinyl are the Crows, Bobbie Hall & the Kings, Avons, Five Royals, Flamingos and the Five Echoes on such labels as Jubilee, Parrot, King, Chance, Imperial, Vee-Jay and Harlem. The mid-’50s brought kiddie records and novelty radio commercials on 12-inch singles for cigarette and other companies. Other than them, and budget labels like Crown and Topps who used colors to help stimulate sales of compilations and pop product, the ’50s was a black vinyl age.

In the first part of the ’60s, rock music (as we know it) made its colored-vinyl plunge with Warner Bros. coloring many D.J. singles, including a gold Everly Bros. “Cathy’s Clown” and a yellow Bill Haley “Candy Kisses.” Around the same time, Columbia and Epic began to press colored DJ or limited-edition singles by such artists as Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Revere, Johnny Horton, the Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds, Johnny Cash and Johnny Mathis. In the mid-’60s, Fantasy Records offered colored 45 rpm 10-inch and 12-inch discs for retail sale — red for jazz releases and green for folk. (Fantasy artists included Lenny Bruce and Dave Brubeck.)

Two other 45 rarities are the red Columbia single with the Hollies’ “Carrie Ann” backed by the Tremeloes’ “Silence Is Golden,” and an authentic Capitol US release of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” on yellow vinyl. In 1963, they released Bobby Vinton’s “Blue on Blue” single and album (of the same name) on blue vinyl — probably the first LP on colored wax. Shelby Singleton’s S.S.S. International issued blue promo singles for country acts in the mid-’60s; at the same time, Sun Records made some yellow promo singles. The only other major mid-’60s colored vinyl were red and yellow Motown DJ singles by Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. Perhaps the best-known colored vinyl LP of the ’60s was Nazz Nazz on SGC in red vinyl.

Well over 150 different colored and picture LPs and 12-inch singles have been released since 1968. LPs pressed in Taiwan for the Japanese market were made in a multitude of colors for in-store sales purposes, with Bob Dylan, Who and Yes LPs available in many colors. These records are considered bootlegs, though, because they were never officially licensed. They are distinguished by poor cover art.

The 1970s have also yielded hundreds of colored vinyl singles. Some recommended collectible singles are the Jefferson Airplane DJ “White Rabbit” (issued to commemorate the group’s 10th anniversary), which had a 1,000-copy run; Graham Parker’s Pink Parker EP which originally sold in the stores in pink vinyl; two different yellow Starz singles; ELO singles on purple and blue; a red 45 by UFO and a Stranglers EP on milky pink. In 1971, John & Yoko’s “War Is Over” was for sale in green.

“We are sending you this gold copy six weeks before it becomes gold,” read the ad during RCA’s promotion of the DJ single for Reunion’s “Life Is a Rock (but the Radio Rolled Me),” which reached number-one on the charts soon after. The following month saw the same treatment for the Thymes’ “You Little Trust Maker.” This time, though, it didn’t quite make it.

Picture Discs

A recent issue of Billboard included an announcement of the contemplated commercial release this Christmas of five picture disc LPs. They are Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run, Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town in and Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams — all indicating that the pic-disc craze of 1978 may become a regular practice. Although picture discs  started out being made for promotional use only earlier this year, record labels have begun experimenting with them at retail.

In 1949, the Vogue record series (107 titles!) featured a picture pressed right into the LP. Sav-Way Industries manufactured the Vogue discs for in- store sales, but they were poorly distributed, failed to sell and have become eminently collectible. The Vogue process differed slightly from that of the present day (invented by Harold Dague), which involves taking laying artwork on a black plastic center, laminating it with clear plastic and then cutting the grooves right in. Some pic-discs feature different artwork on the B- side of the LP.

Dague marketed the process himself after being turned down by the likes of Taft Broadcasting and Hanna-Barbera, eventually hooking up with Fitzgerald-Hartley, a California-based company. By this June there were about 20 different legitimate promotional rock and related picture records, plus a couple produced by unknown manufacturers. By late June the first commercially available pic-disc LP appeared on the market, Heart’s Magazine on Mushroom Records, in a numbered limited edition of 100,000 copies retailing for $13.98.

Capitol Records put out the second commercially available pic-disc, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, and sold out in hours. The owners of King Karol Records in New York went so far as to purchase copies from other record stores to put away for Christmas. As the ridiculousness accelerated, wholesalers were selling at retail prices and the retail price in stores ranged from the official list price of $15.98 up to $25. This pic-disc actually made the Record World chart!

The manufacturer claims picture discs play 90 percent as well as regular discs. A recent development by the Richardson Company in Connecticut is a new clear polystyrene material, P300A, which can be dyed any color. The company believes the process picture discs is as quiet as black vinyl and comparable in price. Colored discs of the past are noisy and wear down fast. Black discs produce better sound quality because the graphite used to color them makes the record harder and fills up the imperfections in the vinyl, making them quieter.